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Govt-and-politics
Corrections Department sued over alleged Open Records Act violations related to executions
  • Updated

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has been sued for alleged violations of the state’s Open Records Act regarding executions.

Last chance offer: $1 for six months

The suit was filed Tuesday by Fred Hodara in Oklahoma County District Court.

“Plaintiff submitted multiple written requests to Defendant under the Oklahoma Open Records Act requesting copies of public records relating to the state’s lethal injection execution plans,” according to the lawsuit. “In response to those requests, Defendant cursorily denied that any responsive records exist. In light of the scope and nature of the requests, the assertation defies belief.”

The suit seeks a declaration that the actions by the Department of Corrections are unlawful. It seeks an order requiring the agency to make the records available.

“Oklahoma has a recent history of botched executions that reflects a pattern of inadequate record-keeping and documentation, irresponsible drug procurement and handling practices, a lack of transparency, and institutional efforts aimed at evading public scrutiny, regulation, accountability and oversight,” the suit says. “This history has generated significant public interest, nonpartisan commissions, and state investigations.”

The state is preparing to begin carrying out the death penalty again after executions were put on hold in 2015. The moratorium came after the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett and the 2015 execution of Charles Warner with a drug that was not authorized.

At the request of Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has set execution dates for seven inmates.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board considered a clemency request earlier this month for one of those inmates, John Marion Grant, and declined to recommend that Gov. Kevin Stitt grant clemency.

Grant was convicted of killing prison employee Gay Carter while he was a DOC inmate in Osage County. He stabbed her 16 times.

Grant is set to die by lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester on Oct. 28.

In his lawsuit, Hodara requested the release of a number of records, including those that are required to be kept by the Department of Corrections under state and federal law.

“The requested records included drug inventories or logs, records containing drug expiration dates, documents related to the quality testing of drugs, as well as documents and correspondence related to the purchase of the drugs,” the lawsuit says.

The Department of Corrections told Hodara it had no documents responsive to his request, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says the agency has a history of refusing to search for and produce records to Hodara that are subject to the Open Records Act.

“Disclosure of the requested records is intended to, and reasonably likely to, enable Plaintiff to evaluate whether Defendant’s lethal injection protocol and Defendant’s implementation thereof are in compliance with applicable law,” according to the lawsuit.

The suit seeks reasonable attorney fees.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Featured video: October 2015: Why Oklahoma executions are on hold


Keith Duffey watches his son, Brennan, and another boy play a computer game during an open house for Union’s new esport arena room at the Union Freshman Academy on Tuesday. Union Public Schools launched the Oklahoma Esports League — the first high school-sponsored league of its kind in Oklahoma — in partnership with nine other school districts across the state a few years ago. Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association voted to make esports a championship activity. Todd Borland, executive director of information technology at Union, said 150 students showed up for try-outs for the school’s competitive video gaming team last Friday.


Education
TikTok 'challenges' involving student vandalism and assault are challenging area schools
  • Updated

A proposed series of monthly “challenges” on the social media platform TikTok have area school districts asking parents to talk to their teenagers about the potential impact of their actions.

Last chance offer: $1 for six months

Leaders at several area schools, including Jenks, Oologah-Talala, Skiatook and Tahlequah have written to parents in recent weeks, laying out the potential consequences of their students’ participation in a series of challenges meant to be carried out on school property with videos posted to the platform.

“There are monthly TikTok challenges that have been shared out and all of them will result in serious consequences from the school and law enforcement,” Oologah-Talala High School Principal Kevin Hogue wrote in a letter to parents obtained by the Tulsa World, noting that participating students could face detention, suspension or arrest.

For example, the “Devious Licks” meme initially encouraged stealing something, such as a soap dispenser or toilet seat, from a participant’s school during the month of September and showing off the ill-gotten goods on TikTok. It quickly evolved to include acts of vandalism, such as breaking a mirror or a light fixture.

Other monthly challenges supposedly on the horizon include “Smack a staff member” in October, “Kiss your friend’s girlfriend” in November, “Jab a breast” January and “Mess up school signs” in February.

TikTok administrators publicly condemned the rumored slap a teacher challenge earlier this month and claimed it was not a trend on the social media platform.

Along with a warning that it was violating the application’s content guidelines, a search Tuesday on TikTok for “slap a teacher” and similar variations yielded only videos of teachers posting their reactions to the proposed challenge and what they would do if a student attempted to slap them.

In an email, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Education Association said none of the organization’s school district-level affiliates have reached out to date with concerns about the challenges that call for physical violence against school employees.

Tulsa Public Schools has not been immune from the effects.

Stephanie Andrews, interim executive director of student and family support services for TPS, said almost all of the district’s 19 secondary sites have had to address on-campus vandalism or theft brought about by the “Devious Licks” challenge.

Like their suburban counterparts, TPS has had to take disciplinary action against students caught participating in the challenges, up to suspensions.

Some families have offered to help pay for replacing items stolen or destroyed by their students as a form of restorative justice, but the district is still having to accommodate some of the costs incurred.

A spokeswoman for Tulsa Public Schools said the district pays $85 for each paper towel dispenser, $40 for each toilet paper dispenser and $20 for each toilet seat.

Those figures do not include the labor costs associated with installing replacement items or cleaning up any associated damage, such as sweeping up a broken mirror.

Along with reaching out to parents to ask for an assist, several TPS principals have had to resort to restricting student access to restrooms simply because of the damages, Andrews said.

“I just feel awful for our maintenance employees who are already working so hard to keep the buildings clean and have to deal with this on top of it,” she said.

Featured video: TikTok says it now has over 1 billion monthly active users


National
Advice on aspirin use could shift

Older adults without heart disease shouldn’t take daily low-dose aspirin to prevent a first heart attack or stroke, an influential health guidelines group said in preliminary updated advice released Tuesday.

Bleeding risks for adults in their 60s and up who haven’t had a heart attack or stroke outweigh potential benefits from aspirin, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said in its draft guidance.

For the first time, the panel said there may be a small benefit for adults in their 40s who have no bleeding risks. For those in their 50s, the panel softened advice and said evidence of benefit is less clear.

The recommendations are meant for people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity or other conditions that increase their chances for a heart attack or stroke. Regardless of age, adults should talk with their doctors about stopping or starting aspirin to make sure it’s the right choice for them, said task force member Dr. John Wong, a primary-care expert at Tufts Medical Center.

“Aspirin use can cause serious harms, and risk increases with age,’’ he said.

If finalized, the advice for older adults would backtrack on recommendations the panel issued in 2016 for helping prevent a first heart attack and stroke, but it would be in line with more recent guidelines from other medical groups.

The task force previously said certain people in their 50s and 60s may want to consider a daily aspirin to prevent a first heart attack and stroke, and that they might get protection against colorectal cancer, too. The updated guidance says more evidence of any benefit for colorectal cancer is needed.

Doctors have long recommended daily low-dose aspirin for many patients who already had a heart attack or stroke. The task force guidance does not change that advice.

The guidance was posted online to allow for public comments until Nov. 8. The group will evaluate that input and then make a final decision.

The independent panel of disease-prevention experts analyzes medical research and literature and issues periodic advice on measures to help keep Americans healthy. Newer studies and a re-analysis of older research prompted the updated advice, Wong said.

Aspirin is best known as a pain reliever but it is also a blood thinner that can reduce chances for blood clots. But aspirin also has risks, even at low doses — mainly bleeding in the digestive tract or ulcers, both of which can be life-threatening.

Dr. Lauren Block, an internist-researcher at Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, said the guidance is important because so many adults take aspirin even though they have never had a heart attack or stroke.

Block, who is not on the task force, recently switched one of her patients from aspirin to a cholesterol-lowering statin drug because of the potential harms.

The patient, 70-year-old Richard Schrafel, has high blood pressure and knows about his heart attack risks. Schrafel, president of a paperboard-distribution business, said he never had any ill effects from aspirin, but he is taking the new guidance seriously.

Rita Seefeldt, 63, also has high blood pressure and took a daily aspirin for about a decade until her doctor told her two years ago to stop.

“He said they changed their minds on that,” recalled the retired elementary school teacher from Milwaukee. She said she understands that science evolves.

Wong acknowledged that the backtracking might leave some patients frustrated and wondering why scientists can’t make up their minds.

“It’s a fair question,” he said. “What’s really important to know is that evidence changes over time.”


Govt-and-politics
Lawmakers hear about pandemic-caused learning loss, air old gripes about education system
  • Updated

The COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to hinder student learning, education leaders and policy experts agreed Tuesday while offering differing views on the extent of the setbacks.

Last chance offer: $1 for six months

“We all knew the disruptions and trauma associated with the pandemic would exact a toll, and indeed they have,” State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister told a joint legislative hearing.

“Like other states across the nation, the assessments confirm that our students paid a significant price in learning loss in some cases. In other cases, not as much.”

As a whole, results of tests taken last spring were down sharply from previous years. But Hofmeister and two of her chief deputies said not all schools were affected the same, nor were all students or groups of students.

Some Republican lawmakers pressed the education officials on whether those discrepancies corresponded with schools or districts that remained closed most of the past year; they were told that was still being sorted out and in any event was proving more complicated than one might think.

“The challenge is that there were pockets of students who were quarantined at different times, so it looks different,” said Maria Cammack, deputy superintendent of assessment, accountability, data systems and research. “At the state level, we don’t have all that information to make those claims.

“My three daughters’ school was in-person most of the year,” Cammack said, “but depending on the kiddo — I had a third-grader, a second-grader and a kindergartner — I had one quarantined for a couple of weeks, and then they were back (in school). And then I had another one quarantined, and then they were back. But in talking with each other and talking to other states, having that in-person instruction matters.

“One of the most strong takeaways is that children need to be with their peers in front of a teacher that they trust,” said Hofmeister.

The latter part of the equation has been the tough one, she said.

“Even when you’re in person, you may not have your teacher there because your teacher is ill or quarantined,” she said.

Although not mentioned Tuesday, Tulsa Public Schools has come under particular criticism from Gov. Kevin Stitt and some Republican lawmakers for remaining in distance learning for an entire calendar year as a safety precaution and because of a shortage of teachers and staff caused by COVID-19.

Other area districts have remained open to various degrees but have closed individual schools and even entire districts for periods of time for the same reasons.

Hofmeister’s battles with Stitt and lawmakers over COVID policy prompted her last week to switch party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and announce that she is challenging Stitt’s reelection next year. She says his unwillingness to take a more forceful role in prevention has actually extended school closures and missed days.

It’s not surprising, then, that Hofmeister’s reception at the Republican-dominated hearing turned a bit chilly. The lawmakers brought their in-house expert, a Ph.D. candidate working for the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, who said virtual learning in Texas has not worked too well.

Although the session was supposed to be about COVID-19 learning loss and how to overcome it, the discussion quickly turned to old complaints about prepandemic test scores and why high school students aren’t taking more math.

“(Constituents) have seen massive amounts of money (spent) for years, and the numbers aren’t there,” said Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber.

One of public education’s most frequent critics, Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, said it was “not accurate” to blame COVID-19 for the system’s failures.

“We were below the national average well before COVID,” he said. “Before we pretend that this COVID is some kind of anomaly, that that’s all of a sudden the reason our kids are struggling, … pretending we weren’t already struggling (to meet national standards), … I don’t think that helps us solve the problem.”

“We were not, and are not, competitive nationally, let alone globally,” Hofmeister replied. “But you cannot do that without teachers. This is why talking about how to hang onto our educators, our teachers, well-equipped and -resourced teachers, was the first priority.”

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